Starting high school is both exciting and nerve-wracking. You have to adjust to a new school environment, new expectations, and new opportunities. College seems like it’s light years away.

Four years isn’t that long, however. Before you know it, you’re going to have to start thinking about your plans for your college degree, if you plan to pursue higher education.

Of course, you don’t have to choose your college or declare your major your freshman year. You have plenty of time to experience the different opportunities that high school has to offer. Still, there are things you can do every year in high school to begin preparing for college. 

This guide will help you navigate the steps you can take each year of high school to set yourself up for success in college. 

The Importance of Preparing for College in High School

If a college degree is your goal, it’s never too early to start preparing for college.

The college application process is increasingly competitive, especially if you’re set on attending a top school. Of course, there’s no way to guarantee acceptance into a specific college. Yet thinking about acceptance criteria in high school gives you the opportunity to decide how you want to meet those criteria. 

Preparing for college isn’t just about meeting acceptance criteria, however. 

It’s also about building the skills and knowledge you’ll need to succeed once you’re there, such as good study habits and excellent writing skills. And you should begin working on independent living skills you’ll need when living on a college campus

When Should High School Students Start Preparing for College?

Starting the preparation process early in high school gives you more time to identify the activities and skills you’ll need. And it’s never too early to focus on high academic achievement and begin exploring extracurriculars and volunteer work.

But, it’s also never too late to begin preparing for college. There’s no need to panic if you weren’t focused on your college journey your freshman year. You can start the planning process at (almost) any point in high school.

Freshman Year

In your freshman year, you don’t need to worry about delving into the college search quite yet. 

Your primary focus should be on academic success and starting to explore your interests.

Create an Academic Plan

Your academic record and strength of schedule will be the most important part of your college application. 

Your academic plan should outline the classes you want to take throughout high school. It should include all the classes you need to graduate. As you make your list, you should begin thinking about which Honors and AP classes you want to take and when you can take them. 

Don’t forget to include some classes that you think you’ll enjoy.

Develop Good Study Habits

Maintaining a high GPA depends on good study habits. Building those study habits now will help you succeed as classes get harder in high school. And you’ll be setting yourself up for success in college, too. 

Some critical study habits that you can begin working on right away are:

  • Developing an organizational system and sticking to it
  • Completing assignments fully and turning them in on time 
  • Note taking skills: practice taking notes in class and trying different methods to see what works best for you
  • Managing your time effectively and efficiently
  • Exploring where and how you study and work the best

Participate in Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities can help you prepare for college in many different ways.

They can demonstrate to college admissions officers that you are a well-rounded high school student with a variety of interests.

They also allow you to explore different areas of interest and even potential career paths. They help you build important life skills like teamwork, leadership, and time management. And of course, they’re a great way to get to know other high school students and get involved in your community.

Start Your College Resume

The best way to ensure that your college application includes all your activities and accomplishments is to build your list as you go. Remembering everything four years later is harder than it might seem! 

Your list should include:

  • School clubs and extracurricular activities
  • Volunteer and community service events
  • Awards and accolades
  • Jobs and internships
  • College classes and college-prep programs

Your list should be as comprehensive and up-to-date as possible. While you may not use everything on your applications, having it accessible will give you options.

Sophomore Year

Preparing for college in your sophomore year probably won’t look much different than it did your freshman year. You should continue to focus on academic success and exploring extracurricular activities. 

You can also start to more clearly identify your interests and strengths.

Research Career Interests and Potential Majors

Sophomore year is a great time to begin exploring how your interests might impact your future career.

Do you excel in chemistry or the robotics team? A career in STEM might be best. Do you love reading and writing? Perhaps you may want to think about a career in law.

Of course, there’s no need to settle on anything quite yet. Explore a variety of different opportunities. You never know what will spark your interest!

Meet with your High School Counselor

School counselors know a lot about different colleges, what admissions committees look for, and the application process in general. 

Their job—in large part—is to help you determine what you want in a college and help you find the college that will meet your criteria.

Getting to know them early will help them better tailor their recommendations. And they can help ensure that you are on track in your college preparations.

Take the PSAT

Standardized testing no longer plays an oversized role in the college admissions process. Post COVID-19, many—although not all—colleges have made submitting test scores optional. 

However, there are still valid reasons why you should take standardized tests, starting with the PSAT your sophomore or junior year of high school. 

Taking a standardized test keeps your options open. You’ll be able to apply to any school you want. And a good test score can improve your chances of admission.

The PSAT can qualify you for the National Merit Scholarship program and other scholarships. And it’s a good way to understand what, if any, additional preparation you need to take the SAT or ACT. 

Spend Your Summer Productively

Free from the pressures of the school year, summers are a great time to participate in activities to feature on your college application and help you prepare for college life. A few activities that look great on a college application include: 

  • Getting a part-time job
  • Volunteering or participating in community service
  • Participating in a college prep program

However you choose to spend your time between sophomore and junior year, be sure to add your activities to your growing college resume so you can remember them when it comes time to work on your college applications.

Junior Year

Junior year of high school is when you really start to engage in active college preparation. 

This year, your goal will be to focus on the skills and activities that you’ll want to highlight on your application. And you’ll want to start imagining what your college journey might look like. 

Focus on Academics

Academics should be a key focus of your junior year.

Take the most advanced classes you can, especially in areas that interest you. However, it’s ok not to take every AP course—too much work can be stressful and may compromise your GPA. 

Remember to focus on developing quality organizational skills, good time management skills, and excellent note taking skills and study habits. These skills will help you continue to succeed in high school and set you up for success in college as well. 

Build Relationships with Teachers and College Counselors

Your teachers and school counselors play a critical role in helping you prepare for college, especially your junior and senior years. 

So don’t be shy—take the time to get to know them and to help them get to know you. These relationships will be critical once it’s time to ask for letters of recommendations. 

Begin College Research

During your junior year, you’ll want to start building a list of potential colleges and fields of study. Some specific factors to think about during this research phase include:

  • Location
  • Size
  • State or private
  • Available programs of study
  • Specialized programs you may be interested in
  • Sports, clubs, and extracurriculars
  • Atmosphere and student body
  • Cost and potential for available scholarships

Attending college fairs is a great way to learn about many different schools and hear directly from admissions officers. 

Your research should also include some college tours and discussions with college admissions officers. 

It’s ok if you don’t have the time or the money to plan an extensive tour visiting college campuses around the country, however. Visiting local colleges is a great way to explore different types of colleges to see what you might like. 

And many colleges today offer virtual tours and meetings with admissions officers. 

Take the SAT or ACT

If you plan to take standardized tests, you’ll want to complete one before the end of your junior year. If you don’t like your score, you have time to study and retake the test again before applications are due.

The two most common standardized tests are the SAT and the ACT. If a college requires standardized tests, they will likely accept either of these two tests. However, you should check specific admission requirements at colleges where you are likely to apply.

Sign up for a Summer College Program

Taking a college class may be one of the best things you can do to prepare for college life. 

Participating in a college program for high school students will help you understand the difference between high school and college academics. It will give you the opportunity to explore a potential major. Depending on the program, you may even be able to earn college credit.

And living on a college campus will give you a preview of what it’s like to make decisions on your own and balance studying with socializing. 

Senior Year

Preparation for graduation and moving on to college can feel like they dominate your senior year. And there’s no doubt about it—senior year can be stressful. 

Here’s where you will need to focus your time and energy during your final year of preparing for college.

Maintain a High GPA

Academic success has been a priority for the first three years of high school. But senioritis can make it easy to let your grades slip. And if you stacked your senior year with AP and college-level classes, maintaining a high GPA can be challenging.

College admissions committees do look at your senior year GPA, so it’s important to stay focused. Maintaining top grades and continuing to work on good study habits remains the most important thing you can do to prepare for college in high school.

Develop a Standardized Test Strategy

If you didn’t take your SAT or ACT in your junior year, you should consider doing so early in your senior year. 

If you have already taken a standardized test, you’ll have to decide whether to use your scores, re-take the test to try to get a higher score, or simply not share your scores with colleges. 

For colleges that are test optional, there’s no right or wrong choice. You have to look at your individual score in the context of your application. School counselors can help you decide which strategy is best for you.

Decide Where to Apply

Much of your focus senior year will be on deciding which colleges and programs you want to apply to. 

If you feel confident about your first choice school, you may want to consider applying early decision or early action. However, you’ll still need to have applications to other schools ready in case you aren’t accepted or are wait-listed at your top choice.

Because many colleges and universities today use the Common Application, it’s easier than ever to apply to a number of different schools. 

Be sure to check specific application requirements for each individual school, however. And always remember to customize each application. 

Complete Your Applications

A large part of senior year will be spent in the college application process. You’ll need to be focused and organized. 

Be sure you know when all the applications are due. 

Keeping an organized calendar of deadlines will help you plan enough time to gather the necessary information. Writing a high quality essay will take time (and many drafts). You’ll also need to give teachers, counselors, coaches, and others sufficient time to prepare and send in their recommendations.

The process can be stressful. But again, the skills you use to move through the applications successfully will be useful when you start college!

Don’t Forget About Financial Aid

Applying for financial aid is an integral part of the application process. 

Financial aid, including scholarships, loans, grants, and family contributions, can be complex. You’ll need to work with your family or guardians to ensure that you have all the correct information and to complete the appropriate forms.

To determine your family contribution and your eligibility for federal student aid, FAFSA is the place to start. You’ll also want to check out similar forms for state financial aid. 

And don’t forget to search for scholarships for which you may be eligible. School counselors often maintain lists of organizations in your area that offer scholarships for high school students.

Build Life Skills

Preparing for college also includes making sure that you are ready for the greater level of independence and responsibility that you’ll have at college. 

You’ll have more control over your schedule, for example, but that also makes it easier to procrastinate. Those organizational and time management skills that you’ve built in high school will be critical to staying on track. 

It’s also important to build basic life skills. Do your own laundry. Work with your family to manage your medications. Go grocery shopping and prepare simple meals. Even these small steps will pay off in the long run as you move to the next phase of your life.

Why Preparing for College in High School is Important

Looking ahead from your first year of high school, college seems very far away. But you’ll be shocked at how quickly the school years pass. 

Following these simple steps throughout your high school years will help make the transition to college easier and your college experience more enjoyable.